The Battle of Waterloo was one of the great milestones in European history — and today marks the 200th anniversary of the episode that concluded an extremely prolonged military campaign.
I’m delighted to be attending the Waterloo 200 Service of Commemoration at St. Paul’s Cathedral today to mark the occasion. The ceremony is testament to the outstanding work of the Waterloo 200 Operating Committee – an organisation I’ve had the privilege to welcome to the European Parliament several times (and once introduced to Herman Van Rompuy, the then President of the European Council).
Two centuries after Waterloo, its consequences remain extremely significant in the ongoing historical narrative of Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe — but there is far much more to this story than nationalism. The battle ended over 20 years of conflict in Europe and brought about over 50 years of peace and stability. While war was to rage on our continent many more times up until 1945, Waterloo reminds us that shifting national alliances are simply not a recipe for stability.
Indeed, the original motivation behind the creation of the European Union was about saying ‘never again’ to war. After World War II, we simply had to find a better way of doing things — to substitute age-old rivalries by merging their essential interests — to create the basis for a community among peoples who have been long divided by bloody conflicts.
Of course, we still have robust arguments – but we now we have them across a debating chamber or a negotiating table. It’s somewhat better!
In the debate in Britain today, when the more pragmatic reasons, and indeed selfish reasons, for having a European Union are at the fore, and when there is much debate about the policies and priorities of the Union, this original motivation is often taken for granted or even forgotten. Yet we do so at our peril. We need only look just beyond the borders of the EU, to Ukraine, the Middle East or North Africa, to see how precious is the stability is that we have created here.
When we squabble over the EU budget or other irritations, it is worth recalling the words of (I think) a recent Finnish Prime Minister, who asked “What economic value do you place on an hour of peace?”.